Four CS master’s students reflect on their path to academic excellence

2024 graduates Abirami Vijay, Justin Kiefel, Poulami Paul, and Aisha Mohamed look back at the most challenging–and rewarding–aspects of the Computer Sciences master’s program.

In Computer Sciences (CS) and across campus, graduate students are integral to their academic departments. In addition to providing critical support to both research to education, these students forge their own paths to pursue independent projects and improve mastery over their chosen focus area.  

Below, we’re spotlighting a few that demonstrate the creativity, brilliance, and innovation that sets Wisconsin CS master’s graduates apart.  

Abirami Vijay 

Age: 23 
Hometown: Chennai, India
Research interests: Virtual reality and human computer interaction

Occasionally, a student will find that teaching — not studying — has been the most memorable part of their education. Such is the case with Abirami Vijay, who supplemented a rigorous courseload by serving as the head teaching assistant for CS 200 (Programming I). “I helped Professor Jim Williams teach introductory java by conducting labs and office hours for students who are starting programming,” says Abirami. “It was my most rewarding experience at UW.”  

Outside of office hours, Abirami spent much of her remaining time like any other master’s student: collaborating on meaningful research projects. As a graduate assistant helping Dr. Kevin Ponto and the Virtual Environments Group at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery (WID), she developed a virtual reality (VR) training experience in collaboration with the Forestry Department of Wisconsin. “My work involved crafting a hyper-realistic VR forest environment and optimizing the experience for standalone headsets (Quest 3) to ensure an untethered and accessible training environment,” she explains. 

Abirami also worked with Professor Yea-Seul Kim and student peers Abinayaa Kanimozhi Chandrasekar and Sunaina Krishnamoorthy, also graduating in May, on improving accessibility in data visualizations. Along with the potential for real-world, life-improving impact, Abirami appreciated the way the project paired technical skills with human-centered design principles.  

“Our research focused on developing a tool to gather precise data about an individual’s vision condition,” explains Abirami. “The goal was to re-render visualizations for maximum accessibility and usability based on their unique vision profile.”  

Following graduation, she’ll be moving to Virginia to join Credence as a software engineer, where she’ll continue her work in emerging technologies such as generative artificial intelligence (AI), natural language processing, and augmented/virtual reality. 

Justin Kiefel 

Age: 24
Hometown: Downingtown, PA
Research interests: Machine learning

Completing a master’s degree requires endurance, which Justin Kiefel has in steady supply. As a member of the Badgers track and field team, his studies were punctuated with trips to Texas, California, Mississippi, and beyond to compete against some of the nation’s best athletes.  

“It has been an honor to represent Wisconsin at competitions across the country,” says Justin. “The skills of discipline and resilience which I developed through the sport will be invaluable as I start my career.” Originally from Pennsylvania, Justin will be relocating to Arlington, Virginia after graduation. There, he’ll be joining Leidos as a machine learning scientist. 

In addition to the determination and self-discipline learned through his time with Badger Athletics, Justin’s time in the classroom provided him with a keen understanding of the emerging technologies he’ll be working with at Leidos. In CS 762 (Advanced Deep Learning), he explored the “mathematical shortfalls” of large language models.  

“I enjoyed the opportunity to work with new technologies and gained a better understanding of the current challenges in this field,” he says. “It was also interesting to observe extremely powerful models struggle with elementary school level arithmetic problems.” 

Like those models, Justin found it surprisingly helpful to return to earlier course material. As a teaching assistant for Professor Scott Swanson, Justin helped undergraduate students wade through the concepts and coursework of CS 506 (Software Engineering). “I learned a ton while working as a TA,” says Justin, “and I admire Professor Swanson’s commitment to student success.” 

Poulami Paul  

Age: 25
Hometown: Kolkata, India
Research interests: Databases and data science

The CS master’s program is intentionally designed to push students to their limits, giving them necessary encouragement to achieve things they may previously have considered impossible. For Poulami Paul, the rigor and high expectations she encountered in CS 537 (Intro to Operating Systems) created an environment where she could truly thrive.  

“The assignments felt overwhelming at times, but looking back, I see how much I learned because of those challenges,” she says. “Professor Louis Oliphant was an amazing teacher; he had a way of explaining things that really made the concepts clear.”  

Equally important, says Poulami, are the unsung heroes of the classroom: TAs and peer mentors. “They were like miracle workers!” she says. “I remember the long lines during office hours as everyone waited for help, but they always managed to help us out.” Without their invaluable assistance, Poulami and her peers would have found the difficult course material even more formidable. 

This made her own position as a teaching assistant even more gratifying. While nervous at the start, helping younger students gave her a way to pay it forward. “As I moved from being a student to a teaching assistant, I learned something very important: empathy,” explains Poulami. “I’d been in their place — I knew what it was like to have a project falling apart right before a deadline or to feel completely stuck. That kept me going.” 

So did the excitement of learning new skills. While working with Professor AnHai Doan on a benchmarking project, Poulami was first exposed to entity matching. “Entity matching was completely new to me, so diving headfirst into it was exciting,” she says. “Working on this project not only sharpened my technical skills but also taught me a lot about resilience. It also gave me the chance to do independent research, which I’m truly grateful for.” 

Following graduation, Poulami will be joining Meta as a data engineer. 

Aisha Mohamed

Age: 27
Hometown: Doha, Qatar
Research interests: Machine learning and data systems

Coming all the way from Doha, Aisha Mohamed quickly determined that finding community would be essential to her UW–Madison CS experience. As a member of both WACM and SACM —  campus chapters of Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) organizations for women and students respectively — she discovered a network of computing students committed to supporting and learning from one another. Her skills and perspective as a grad student made her a mentor for undergraduates, giving her purpose, lessons in leadership, and a welcome support system as she finished her degree. 

Serving as a TA for CS 300 (Programming II) and CS 400 (Programming III) gave Aisha a new appreciation for her own instructors. In particular, she calls CS 506 (Software Engineering) being a challenging course made enjoyable by Professor Scott Swanson. 

“It’s a practical course every CS student should take, especially if they’re seeking a career in engineering,” says Aisha. “Working as a team, you learn the processes and tools of software development. Very few people could do what Professor Swanson does with this course.” 

Outside of the classroom, she refined her skills through an internship focused on improving the video playback quality at Amazon Prime Video: “I built a refined dataset of playback sessions with context features from raw dumps using AWS tools, then designed and implemented a random forest regressor to predict network performance,” says Aisha. “Finally, I performed data analysis and visualization and identified critical features for optimizing the quality and reliability of video playback.”  

“It was a great opportunity for me to use my technical expertise to work on one of my favorite products,” she continues. “Computer science has made entertainment so much more entertaining.”  

Following graduation, Aisha is interested in pursuing a career in machine learning. By combining her computer systems expertise and passion for machine learning, she hopes to build scalable, reliable, and safe AI systems.